How the NLRB interprets Graduate Students’ Employment Status

    Over the last 25 years, I have been lucky enough to have this space to write about work and business. I am fully aware that I write for a conservative-leaning newspaper, and that I bring a left-leaning voice sometimes (not always). I am grateful for the chance to share my ideas with the folks who read this column even when some disagree with me. That’s what journalism is for after all.
    One of the basic tenets that I have approached my professional life with is that workers should be paid for the work they do. If someone performs work for an employer, she should be able to join with like-minded employees to advance their mutual interests. That idea is caustic to about half of the population. I get it.
    The reason I support collective action for workers is because ultimately I think that when employees do better, the economy as a whole does better. Higher wages lead to more buying power which helps drive the economic engine.
    Meanwhile, when workers are undervalued for the work they do, productivity suffers, depression increases, and financial precariousness becomes the norm. Workplace culture becomes a casualty. I’m for abundance, not scarcity.
    Which brings me to a recent change announced by the National Labor Relations Board related to the work that graduate students do at colleges and universities.
    The NLRB is a great example of how elections matter: the Board’s policies swing like a pendulum from conservative to liberal based on whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House. With the recent election of Joe Biden, the Board’s policies are swinging back to the liberal side.
    But back in September 2019, during the Trump administration, the Board proposed a rule that grad students who performed services including teaching or research assistance at private colleges in connection with their studies are not “employees.” If not “employees” then the grad students could not band together to negotiate for better working conditions and wages. They essentially would be servants to their “employer;” well, not “employer,” because they’re not employees. They would be servants to their college and subject to the whims of the professor they were assigned.
    With so much hinging on successful completion of the student’s graduate studies, you can see how the mismatch in power dynamics could lead to abuse.
    But then this past March, the NLRB announced that it was withdrawing the proposed rule. By August of this year, President Biden will have appointed a majority of board members and the pendulum will have completely swung one hundred eighty degrees.    
    Back in 2016, the NLRB issued a decision in a case involving Columbia University declaring that student workers are “employees” and eligible to organize.
    When the NLRB found that grad students are not “employees,” it hinged its decisions on a conclusion that grad students are “primarily” students and not workers. Similarly, this situation is like how my nephew, who plays football at Notre Dame, is a “student-athlete,” not an employee. Yeah, tell that to NBC. And tell that to my nephew when he is putting in 8-hour days in the weight room and on the practice field during the off-season.           
    I am glad that the NLRB is favoring workers right now. It is good for the economy and good for the people in this country who work.

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